Here is the myth of Daphne as adapted by composer Richard Strauss and his librettist, Joseph Gregor: Apollo, god of light and truth, falls in love with Daphne, nymph of trees and rivers. When his amorous advances are rebuffed, Apollo, in a fit of jealousy, kills the man Daphne loves, and then, in a fit of remorse, asks his father, Zeus, god of might, majesty, and philandering, to turn her into a laurel tree so that her twined leaves might, in Gregor’s words, “ennoble forever the heroes of mankind.” While not even close to the story of Elektra, Strauss’s earlier Greek tragedy, in its sexual depravity and casual mortality, Daphne would still be a stiff dose of Attic tragedy if not for Strauss’s transcendent music.

And it is transcendent. For Daphne, the seventy-three-year-old Strauss wrote a score of pastoral lyricism and pellucid loveliness, of exquisite colors and ecstatic climaxes, of luminous orchestral writing and, especially, numinous vocal writing. His characterization of Daphne is immensely affectionate — Strauss clearly adores this nymph and lavishes on her all the skill he has. It’s also enormously affecting. Daphne’s opening hymn to the natural world glows with a loving ardor, and her closing transformation incarnates that love in fervent sonorities. The music turns Gregor’s story into a sublime yet deeply human work of art.

For its presentation of a concert version of Strauss’s opera at Hill Auditorium on Thursday, October 13, the University Musical Society has enlisted soprano Renée Fleming to embody Daphne. Fleming made her Ann Arbor debut in 1995, as a young soprano who sang the excruciating vocal lines of Alban Berg’s agonizing Suites from Wozzeck and Lulu in a voice of purest gold. Two years later, she released a disc called Signatures featuring excerpts from what she once described as “my signature roles in opera houses around the world”; by then a superstar soprano, she sang the transformation passages from Daphne in a voice of purest platinum.

The only question is, Can even a voice of purest platinum embody Daphne’s ardent love? Any singer with the guts to take on the role of Daphne has to have a stupendous voice, but a stupendous voice is only the start. The singer has to make Daphne real, has to make her love of the earth real, has to make her fear of the god of light and truth real. She also has to make her plight pitiable, her grief palpable, and her final glorious transformation compelling. On Signatures, Fleming’s Daphne was very, very beautiful for eleven minutes. Sustaining that for the better part of ninety minutes will be a bigger task. If she can make her character real, Daphne will be a transcendent bucolic tragedy. If she can’t, Daphne will be just another Greek myth.

[Review published October 2005]